“Commitment Takes Us Beyond Understanding”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – November 4, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

    Psalm 146; Mark 12:28-34

All Saints Sunday

    This morning's lesson opens with Jesus teaching a group of listeners.  A curious Teacher of the Law was passing by the group and paused to listen to what Jesus was saying.  He became engaged in how Jesus was weaving his lessons of life with his storytelling.  He raised his hand to ask a question. 

    I've been listening to everything that you are teaching and I am impressed.  I'm curious about one thing, however.  What teaching do you consider to be the most important among all the lessons we have in our tradition?

    Jesus responded by reciting an expanded version of The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  His expansion had to do with prefacing how people should also respond to God.  Upon hearing Jesus' words, the Teacher of the Law enthusiastically responded, "Well done Teacher!  Your answer is correct!" 

    Jesus' response to this teacher was most curious.  He said, "You are, indeed, wise in your understanding.  You are not far from the Kingdom of God." (Mark 12:34) This morning, we are going to explore what Jesus meant by his comment.  If the truth about our lives were known by everyone, probably all of us live not far from being in the Kingdom. 

    There have been a number of classmates in my past who were surprised, if not shocked, by my decision to become a pastor.  Their memories were quite vivid in remembering activities in my past.  We really never know what impression we are making on others as we are growing up.    A college friend said:

    You were the President of the fraternity that coordinated some of the largest parties for the student body that had ever been held.  You hired live bands and served Budweiser beer.  You and your brothers took big risks and broke the ice for the rest of us.  You pulled it off time after time. However, you did this knowing that you were breaking the college rules regarding alcohol consumption.

    Now, you are in the pulpit of a church, wearing your clerical garments and preaching to your church members on how they should live their lives. How do you reconcile the way you were with where you are now?

    What could I say?  He was correct. I was ultimately responsible for leading my fraternity brothers down a path that could have resulted in my being expelled from college.

    Through the years each time I willfully painted outside the lines, I have recalled the words of a young man in my first youth group.  He spoke during the congregational gathering when I was leaving Cheverly for a new appointment in West Virginia. He said, "Among the things that Dick Stetler has taught us was how to be a Christian and still have a good time."  I've carried Brad's words with me to this very day.

    Oddly enough, I have never consumed a beer in my life.  I've tasted it but for me beer does not pass the smell test.  Through the years of dealing with people, I have found it easier to forgive others because all of us at one time or another have painted outside the lines.

    In our culture today, we tend to place one another under a microscope, particularly if we are running for public office.  People are eager to find a time in the lives of others when they were less careful with what was said, what they wrote, or what they made visible by their behavior. 

    When we associate with people whose attitudes and actions violate our sensibilities and values, we often discover that our tolerance, forgiveness, and patience with them are missing from our filters.  When we judge anyone harshly, we are revealing to everyone around us the contents of our inner-world and nothing more.  It could be said of all of us that we are not far from living in the Kingdom of God.  What does this mean?  Most of our violations have come from our skirting our cultural laws. 

    Cultural laws change according to the desires of later generations who think about human behavior differently.  We have seen countless changes during our lifetime, e.g., making illegal smoking tobacco products inside of buildings, birth control, the acceptance of sexual intimacy outside of marriage, legalizing abortion, same sex couples, recreational use of marijuana, and allowing Arabian women to drive cars.  Cultural laws are quite different from the teachings found in the lesson for today. 

    Jesus recited for the Teacher of the Law two fundamental teachings:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second important teaching is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

(Mark 12:30f)

    Jesus said that anyone who embodies these two teachings will be demonstrating everything that was written by Moses and the Prophets.  (Matthew 22:40) If this is true, why did Jesus tell the Teacher of the Law, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God"?  How close to the Kingdom do we have to be before we consider ourselves as being a part of it?  Actually, we are not the one that decides our fate.  We must trust that our Creator's love for each of us is much larger than our best estimates.

    As we consider the illustration in our lesson, we realize that the Teacher of the Law knew the answer before Jesus answered his question.  No doubt, he knew the chapter and verse of the Laws of Moses.  If his knowledge of the Laws was enough to grant him entrance into the Kingdom, he would be at the head of the class.  However, Jesus would still say that he was not far from the Kingdom.  How come?

    A person who might be considered for citizenship in the Kingdom of God was a woman in one of my former churches.  She did not have the Biblical knowledge possessed by that Teacher of the Law. In fact, she had never read a word of the Bible.

    Her spirit made visible much that Jesus was teaching.  When she learned that someone was sick, she would take a kettle of stew to their home that would last the family for days. When a young man needed a winter coat, she did her best to find one that fit him.  She was an excellent listener. She was a natural storyteller. 

    She was the wife of a successful farmer and she was definitely old school in her ways.  When she used a tool, she put it back where she found it.  Another word for success for her was follow-through.  She kept her word.  I once told her that if there is a conflict sometime in the future, I wanted her to be on my team.   All she would do is smile and say, "There aren't many conflicts that last very long. There are too many solutions available." 

     There is a difference between concepts, knowledge, academic skills, and having truth pour through us because it has been stitched into our spirits.  She embodied all of these responses without having read a word of the Bible.  She just lived what she knew in her heart.  

    Her parents sent her to work on their farm nearly as soon as she was old enough to do chores. Her parents needed her to cook, sew, do laundry, and clean for her four brothers. She had never been taught how to read.  She had been taught how to serve without resistance.  She told me that this became her calling as she was growing up.  

    There are scores of people who have knowledge and understanding yet they find it extremely challenging to become what it is they know.  Their attitudes of being often reveal that they are not far from the Kingdom of God.  They have the knowledge but not the will and commitment that would allow their understanding to bear fruit throughout their lives.

    Scholars, theologians and prolific authors often consider themselves as being the ones who have kept the Jesus movement alive in every generation. But they are writing and preaching to the choir.  Average people do not read their material. A greater truth may be that it has been common, ordinary people with very little self-recognized talents and ability that have enabled Jesus' message to be known to our generation.  

    As we celebrate All Saints Day today, we need to remind ourselves that the extraordinary message to love God and to love our neighbors is far from fading from our lives.  We should cease judging the Jesus movement by the number of people attending our churches today. The Holy Spirit within people moves in ways that are invisible to most people.

    The headlines that attempt to guide our thinking about the world are created by a miniscule number of individuals who have made a nuisance of themselves.  The deeds, words, and attitudes of this tiny minority become breaking news as they seemingly control the conversation of our country's leaders and news media.  What is fascinating is how much we do not know because it is not sensationalized by violence and political blame games. 

    Matt Damon is a Hollywood actor who played Jason Bourne in numerous movies.  What we may not know is that this actor has funded Water.org.  Matt's passion is to provide clean, pure water to people who in the 21st Century do not have it.  His small loans to tribal chiefs to build wells have affected seven million people.

    People who recognize the name Chris Long know that he plays the position of a defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles football team.  We may not know that he also is providing funds to build wells for fresh water in East Africa.

    One soft-spoken, sweet and petite lady changed the social sensitivities to people of color when she painted outside the lines BIG TIME.  She was ordered to give her seat on a bus to a white person and Rosa Parks refused to move.  She was taking her marching orders from someone who had taught her to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as you love yourself." (Mark 12:30f) She had too much self-respect to move from her seat. Without realizing it, she changed the conversation of the world by starting a revolution.

    Most authentic Saints will remain unknown to the world.  However, they are known by God because they painted outside the lines while they lived with the same attitude as Jesus did.  When we understand the laws that governed the Jews and compare it with what Jesus taught, they are a universe apart.  Today, we celebrate with gratitude the influence such saints have had on our lives.



Eternal God, we thank you for the gift of memory.  Enable us to remember that every healthy branch is connected to a vine and that every house stands because of the strength of its foundation. Today, we remember with gratitude the foremothers and fathers of our faith that have left footprints guiding us to become more faithful disciples of Jesus.  Inspire us to remember that the inward journey that they traveled was the same one that Jesus pointed to during his ministry. Thank you for leaving us with a blueprint to build a life that makes our faith and trust visible to others.  Amen.



Loving and always present God, as we gather together today, we are grateful for the moments when our minds are intentionally directed to recall all those who have made their contributions to our spiritual growth.  All Saints Day is certainly one of those moments.  We did not get to our level of spiritual awareness by ourselves.  We would not be in this building were it not for those who had the vision, secured the land, and took the risks to make happen what we now enjoy today. 

We thank you God for the realization that it is now our turn to glow in the dark. Few of us are very good at believing that we follow in the footsteps of others that we call saints. If we are the saints that future generations will refer to, how humbling that makes us feel. We know that we make hasty decisions and uninformed judgments. We understand that perfection is unattainable.  When we look at our very humble efforts, we wonder how the Jesus movement survived. We honestly confess that we do not understand humanity's magnificent canvas while you are still applying creative brush strokes.   

We are grateful for the times you use one of our smiles, our kind words, our laughter, our enthusiasm, our hard work, and generosity to inspire a future that we currently cannot see.  Thank you for our faith and trust that others inspired in us somewhere in our background.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .